The news that Starbucks introduced a $7 cup of coffee to select stores in the Pacific Northwest has generated the kind of buzz usually reserved for military sex scandals and Costco openings. It’s understandable, though: Power-hungry Washingtonians have always been fascinated by rare and expensive things that we cannot possess, and everyone, no matter where they live, has a hard time comprehending a medium-size cup of Joe that costs roughly the same as a 34-ounce container of Folgers at Wal-mart.
Which is why I called Joel Finkelstein, the owner and master roaster behind Qualia Coffee in Petworth. The guy knows his specialty coffees, right down to the Equatorial farms where they are grown.
Finkelstein tells All We Can Eat that the Geisha heritage varietal, the bean responsible for Starbucks’s pricey Costa Rica Finca Palmilera coffee, can trace its roots back to Ethiopia, often considered the birthplace of coffee. Many decades ago, the Geisha tree was brought to Panama, where it had been one of several varietals quietly cultivated at Hacienda la Esmeralda. Sometime in the early 2000s, Finkelstein says, the Esmeralda farmer apparently realized these beans were a rare and delicate thing.
The Geisha coffee craze started not long afterward.
Since about 2004, Geisha beans have fetched increasingly higher prices at auction, reaching $170 a pound in 2010, according to this New York Times report. But the prices have dropped sharply in recent years, in part because la Esmeralda started selling Geisha seeds to farmers throughout Central America, Finkelstein notes.
“They’re growing Geisha varietal coffee trees all up and down Central America,” Finkelstein says. “It’s still fairly new, because it’s only been recently introduced to these countries.”
A Starbucks spokesperson told Bloomberg that stores are selling the Geisha beans for $40 per half-pound, which seems a fair price. Both Finkelstein and the Times note that Geisha lots, generally speaking, now sell in the $40-per-pound range, though some have been as low as $29 a pound. That’s significantly more expensive than the $4 per pound that Finkelstein pays on average for his green coffee beans. (His average price per cup at Qualia is $2.50.)
Regardless, as Finkelstein says, “The [Geisha] price is not based on the quality of the beans.” It’s based on the scarcity of the supply.
Finkelstein says he sampled Geisha coffee years ago, but found that the flavors “were not extraordinary.” He remembers distinct floral notes and the flavor of chocolate.
The Qualia roaster has doubts that Starbucks will have the capacity or time to treat the Geisha beans right. The coffee giant tends to roast in large batches that value volume over quality, Finkelstein says. Plus, he suspects those expensive beans will not be at their prime once they reach the 46 stores where they are currently available (even though the locations are all in the same geographic area and could ostensibly be roasted and quickly shipped to the shops).
“Their production chain is so long, it’s not going to be fresh,” he says.
Well, it seems that Starbucks can be more nimble when it wants to be. The Geisha beans, purchased from La Candelia Estates in Costa Rica, are “small batch roasted” right “in our back yard,” says Starbucks spokeswoman Alisa Martinez.
“This is such an exquisite coffee, you want to do it justice,” Martinez adds. “We determined that the best way to roast this coffee was to use a lighter roast” than the typical dark-roasted coffees at Starbucks.
Martinez is not sure how fast the beans, once roasted, make it to stores, but she thought they were “delivered pretty quickly.” One thing is for certain, though: Starbucks does not have enough of the Geisha beans to satisfy coffee drinkers coast to coast. The company has only 3,800 pounds of the green beans, which is the total amount harvested at La Candelia, Martinez says.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she adds. Starbucks does hope to find other farmers who can sell the chain more Geisha beans.
To get a better sense of how the Starbucks’s Costa Rica Finca Palmilera tastes, I reached out to Hanna Raskin, the award-winning food writer and critic for the Seattle Weekly. She promptly informed me that she’s not a coffee drinker, but quickly offered up colleagues at her paper to sample the java for All We Can Eat.
“According to our managing editor and editorial assistant, both veteran coffee drinkers, ‘it’s good,’” Raskin e-mails. “They felt it was mellow and detected a few chocolaty notes. As I said, I’m no coffee drinker, but I picked up almond on the nose.
“The coffee experts agreed the coffee was reminiscent of a Stumptown roast, saying it was sour where most coffees are bitter. Neither of them wanted to pay $7 for it (although, being Seattle, they wondered whether the price was inflated because the farmers were being paid more fairly),” Raskin added. “They’re both satisfied with standard Starbucks coffee.”